The Post Carbon Reader Series: Water

Adapting to a New Normal
By Sandra Postel
About the Author
Sandra Postel directs the independent Global Water
Policy Project. A leading expert on international water
issues, she is the author of Last Oasis: Facing Water
Scarcity, which now appears in eight languages and was
the basis for a PBS documentary. She has authored more
than 100 articles for popular, scholarly, and news publi-
cations, including Science, Scientific American, Foreign
Policy, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.
She was recently appointed the National Geographic
Society’s first Freshwater Fellow. Postel is a Fellow of
Post Carbon Institute.
Post Carbon Institute
© 2010
613 4th Street, Suite 208
Santa Rosa, California 95404 USA
This publication is an excerpted chapter from The
Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s
Sustainability Crises, Richard Heinberg and Daniel
Lerch, eds. (Healdsburg, CA: Watershed Media, 2010).
For other book excerpts, permission to reprint, and
purchasing visit
1 The PoST CARBoN ReAdeR SeRieS
Water, like energy, is essential to virtually every human
endeavor. It is needed to grow food and fiber, to make
clothes and computers, and, of course, to drink. The
growing number of water shortages around the world
and the possibility of these shortages leading to eco-
nomic disruption, food crises, social tensions, and even
war suggest that the challenges posed by water in the
coming decades will rival those posed by declining
oil supplies.
In fact, our water problem turns out to be much more
worrisome than our energy situation, for three main
reasons. First, unlike oil and coal, water is much more
than a commodity: It is the basis of life. Deprive any
plant or animal of water, and it dies. Our decisions
about water—how to use, allocate, and manage it—are
deeply ethical ones; they determine the survival of most
of the planet’s species, including our own. Second, also
unlike oil and coal, water has no substitutes. The global
economy is transitioning away from fossil fuels toward
solar, wind, and other noncarbon energy sources, but
there is no transitioning away from water. And third, it
is through water that we will experience the impacts of
climate change most directly.
The rise in global temperatures driven by the last
150  years of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions is
fundamentally altering the cycling of water between
the sea, the atmosphere, and the land. Climate scien-
tists warn of more extreme floods and droughts and of
changing precipitation patterns that will make many
dry areas drier and wet areas wetter. They warn of melt-
ing glaciers and ice caps that within a few decades could
severely diminish the river flows upon which nearly a
third of the world’s people depend.
As if on cue, nature
seems to be highlighting these warnings at every turn:
. .
Floods, droughts, storms, and other climate-related
natural disasters forced 20 million people from their
homes in 2008.
. .
Australia remains locked in a decade-long drought
deemed the worst in the country’s 117 years of
. .
In late August 2008, India faced the dislocation of
some 3 million people when the Kosi River breached
a dam and roared out of the Himalayas, causing the
worst flooding of that river in fifty years.
. .
Ten months later, India witnessed its driest June in
eighty years with millions of farmers unable to plant
their crops.
. .
In 2009, famine stalked millions in the Horn of
Africa, as failed rains led to the worst food crisis in
Ethiopia and Kenya in a quarter century.
The United States is by no means immune to these
climate-related water risks. While farmers in the
Midwest continued recovering from the spring flood
of 2008 (in some areas, the second “100-year flood” in
fifteen years), farmers in California and Texas fallowed
When it comes
to water, the past
is no longer
a reliable guide
to the future.
2 The PoST CARBoN ReAdeR SeRieS
cropland and sent cattle prematurely to slaughter to
cope with the drought of 2009. In the Southeast, after
twenty months of dryness, Georgia governor Sonny
Perdue stood outside the state capitol in November
2007 and led a prayer for rain, beseeching the heavens
to turn on a spigot for his parched state. Two years later,
Perdue was pleading instead for federal aid after intense
rainstorms caused massive flooding near Atlanta that
claimed at least seven lives.

Although none of these disasters can be pinned directly
on global warming, they are the kinds of events climate
scientists warn will occur more often as the planet heats
up. Even more worrisome, the effects of climate change
are already calling into question the very assumptions
that have underpinned water planning and manage-
ment for decades. In 2008, seven top water scientists
argued persuasively in the journal Science that “sta-
tionarity”—the foundational concept that natural sys-
tems vary and fluctuate within an unchanging set of
boundaries—is no longer valid for our understanding
of the global water system.
In other words, when it
comes to water, the past is no longer a reliable guide to
the future. The data and statistical tools used to plan
$500 billion worth of annual global investments in
dams, flood-control structures, diversion projects, and
other big pieces of water infrastructure are no longer

This is not just a problem for the planners and civil
servants who run our local water systems. It raises
very serious questions about community health, pub-
lic safety, food security, and risk management. Will
those levees keep the river within its banks? Should
that expensive new dam be built when its useful life
will be shortened by silt washed down from flooding
mountainsides? Will farms get needed irrigation water
once the glacier-fed river flows have dwindled? How do
we guard against what once seemed unthinkable—the
drying up of prime water sources?
In more and more regions of the world, the unthink-
able seems to be close at hand. Many Australian water
Reprinted with permission from: “Freshwater ecoregions of the World,” project of the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy, 2008, Copyright © 2008 WWF/TNC.
Figure 7.1
Water Stress Areas of the World
3 The PoST CARBoN ReAdeR SeRieS
managers now believe that a decade-long dry spell that
has sent rice production plummeting, depleted reser-
voirs, and left the Murray River trickling into the sand
is not going away. Increasingly, the question “Down
Under” is not when the drought will end, but how this
country of more than 21 million people—and its glob-
ally significant agricultural sector—can adapt to a per-
manently drier climate.

In the U.S. Southwest, a similar day of reckoning is
on the horizon. Scientists at the Scripps Institution
of Oceanography at the University of California–San
Diego estimate that there is a 50 percent chance that
Lake Mead—the vast reservoir that delivers Colorado
River water to tens of millions of people and one mil-
lion acres of irrigated land—will dry up by 2021.
2000, Lake Mead stood at 96 percent of capacity; by
the summer of 2009, it was down to 43 percent. After
analyzing nineteen climate models, a team of thir-
teen earth scientists concluded in 2007 that the Dust
Bowl-like dryness seen in the region in recent years
“will become the new climatology of the American
Southwest within a time frame of years to decades.”

As in Australia, it may be folly—and a loss of precious
time—to assume that business as usual and life as it’s
currently lived in the Southwest can continue.
The water challenges confronting us locally, region-
ally, and globally are unprecedented. They call for fun-
damental changes in how we use, manage, and even
think about water. The good news is that it’s within
our economic and technological ability to have a future
in which all food and water needs are met, healthy eco-
systems are sustained, and communities remain secure
and resilient in the face of changing circumstances.
The path most of the world is on, however, will not lead
to this more desirable state.
Where We Are, and how We got here
At frst glance, it’s hard to believe the world could be
in trouble with water. Ever since the Apollo astronauts
photographed Earth from space, we’ve had the image
of our home as a strikingly blue planet, a place of great
water wealth. But from a practical standpoint, this
image is largely illusory. Most of Earth’s water is ocean,
which provides a multitude of benefts but is far too
salty to drink, irrigate crops, or manufacture computer
chips. Only a tiny share of all the water on Earth—less
than one-hundredth of 1 percent—is fresh and renewed
each year by the solar-powered hydrologic cycle.
Although renewable, freshwater is finite: The quantity
available today is virtually the same as when civiliza-
tions first arose thousands of years ago. As world popu-
lation grows, the volume of water available per person
decreases; thus, between 1950 and 2009, as world
population climbed from 2.5 billion to 6.8 billion, the
global renewable water supply per person declined by
Only a tiny share of all the water on
Earth—less than one-hundredth
of 1 percent—is fresh and renewed
each year by the solar-powered
hydrologic cycle.
4 The PoST CARBoN ReAdeR SeRieS
63 percent. If, as projected, world population climbs to
8 billion by 2025, the water supply per person will drop
by an additional 15 percent.

Tough telling, these global fgures mask the real story.
Te rain and snow falling on the land is not evenly dis-
tributed across the continents or throughout the year
(see fgure 7.1).
Many of the world’s people and farms
are not located where the usable water is. China, for
instance, has 19.5 percent of the world’s population, but
only 7 percent of the renewable freshwater. Te United
States, by contrast, has 4.5 percent of the world’s popu-
lation and nearly 8 percent of the renewable freshwater.
Even so, most of U.S. farm irrigation and urban growth
is in the West, which has much less water than the east-
ern United States.
For most of modern history, water management has
focused on bringing water under human control and
transferring it to expanding cities, industries, and farms.
Since 1950, the number of large dams has climbed from
5,000 to more than 45,000—an average construction
rate of two large dams per day for half a century. Globally,
364 large water-transfer schemes move 400 billion cubic
meters (1 cubic meter equals about 264 gallons) of water
annually from one river basin to another—equivalent
to transferring the annual fow of twenty-two Colorado
Rivers. Millions of wells tap underground aquifers,
using diesel or electric pumps to lif vast quantities of
groundwater to the surface.
It’s hard to fathom today’s
world of 6.8 billion people and $60 trillion in annual
economic output without such water engineering. It has
allowed oasis cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas to thrive
in the desert, world food production to expand along
with population, and living standards for hundreds of
millions to rise.
But the benefits of water development have not been
shared equitably. More than 1 billion people lack access
to safe drinking water, and some 850 million people are
chronically hungry. Moreover, many regions have over-
shot their sustainable limits of water use. An unsettling
number of large rivers—including the Colorado, Rio
Grande, Yellow, Indus, Ganges, Amu Darya, Murray,
and Nile—are now so overtapped that they discharge
little or no water to the sea for months at a time.
overpumping of groundwater is causing water tables
to fall across large areas of northern China, India,
Pakistan, Iran, the Middle East, Mexico and the west-
ern United States. As much as 10 percent of the world’s
food is produced by overpumping groundwater. This
creates a bubble in the food economy far more serious
than the recent housing, credit, or dot-com bubbles, for
we are meeting some of today’s food needs with tomor-
row’s water.

This overpumping is particularly serious in India.
Using satellite data, scientists have recently estimated
that groundwater is being depleted across northern
India, which includes the nation’s breadbasket, to the
tune of 54 billion cubic meters per year. As wells run
dry, the nation’s food supply—as well as the liveli-
hoods of the region’s 114 million people—is increas-
ingly at risk.
Likewise, in the United States, the
massive Ogallala Aquifer is steadily being depleted.
The Ogallala spans parts of eight states, from south-
ern South Dakota to northwest Texas, and provides 30
percent of the groundwater used for irrigation in the
country. As of 2005, a volume equivalent to two-thirds
of the water in Lake Erie had been depleted from the
excessive extractions for agriculture and a decade-long drought have
decimated Australia’s murray-darling river system, the continent’s largest.
5 The PoST CARBoN ReAdeR SeRieS
As in India, most farmers will stop irrigat-
ing when the wells run dry or the water drops so far
down that it’s too expensive to pump.
It is tempting to respond to these predicaments with
bigger versions of the familiar solutions of the past—
drill deeper wells, build bigger dams, move more river
water from one place to another. Indeed, many leaders
and localities are responding in just that way. By some
estimates, the volume of water moved through river-
transfer schemes could more than double by 2020.
China is proceeding with a massive $60 billion proj-
ect to transfer water from the Yangtze River basin in
the south to the water-scarce north. If completed, it
would be the largest construction project on Earth,
transferring 41.3 billion cubic meters of water per
year—a volume equal to half the Nile River.
Interlinking Rivers Project would be even more gran-
diose. Estimated to cost at least $120 billion, it entails
building 260 transfers between rivers with much of the
water moved from northern Himalayan rivers, includ-
ing the Ganges and Brahmaputra, to water-scarce west-
ern provinces. Though still in the planning stages, the
main goal would be to expand the nation’s irrigated
area by about a third, some 35 million hectares.
In a world of changing rainfall patterns and river flows,
substantial hydrologic uncertainty, and rising energy
costs, such mega-projects are risky. They often take
decades to complete, so payback periods on the large
capital investments can be very long (if full payback
occurs at all). They often worsen social inequities, such
as when poor people are dislocated from their homes to
make way for the dams and canals and “downstream”
communities lose the flows that sustained their liveli-
hoods. And serious environmental damage—from soil
salinization, water waste, altered river flows, and the
loss of fisheries—routinely follows on the heels of such
Moreover, large-scale infrastructure built to
accommodate river flows today may be poorly matched
to climate-altered flows of the future. The Himalayan
rivers central to India’s Interlinking Rivers Project, for
example, will carry greatly diminished flows once the
glaciers that feed them disappear.
In addition, giant water projects require giant quanti-
ties of energy. Pumping, moving, treating, and distrib-
uting water take energy at every stage. Transferring
Colorado River water into southern California, for
example, requires about 1.6 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of
electricity per cubic meter of water; the same quantity
of water sent hundreds of kilometers from north to
south through California’s State Water Project takes
about 2.4 kWh. As a result, the energy required to pro-
vide drinking water to a typical southern California
home can rank third behind that required to run the
air conditioner and refrigerator.
Another increasingly popular option for expanding
water supplies—desalination—imposes a high energy
In a world of changing rainfall
patterns and river fows,
substantial hydrologic uncertainty,
and rising energy costs, water
mega-projects are risky.
6 The PoST CARBoN ReAdeR SeRieS
price as well.
Producing 1 cubic meter (about 264 gal-
lons) of drinkable water from saltwater through reverse
osmosis requires about 2 kWh of electricity, usu-
ally produced from fossil fuels. Although that energy
requirement is down from 5–10  kWh twenty years
ago, it is still energy intensive. Moreover, today’s most
energy-efficient desalting plants are approaching the
theoretical thermodynamic limit for separating salts
from water, so further energy reductions will be modest
at best.
Currently, the roughly 15,000 desalination
plants worldwide have the capacity to produce 15.3 bil-
lion cubic meters of water per year, which is less than
0.5 percent of global water demand. Some 47 percent of
this capacity is in the Middle East, where many nations
can afford desalination—essentially turning their oil
into water.

Despite desalination’s high costs, carbon dioxide out-
put, risks to coastal marine environments, and produc-
tion of toxic waste, global capacity roughly doubled
between 1995 and 2006. Most U.S. capacity is in
Florida, California, and Texas, with many more plants
slated to be built.
Unfortunately, planners and policy-
makers still eyeing desalination as a silver-bullet solution
to water shortages apparently miss—or dismiss—the
perverse irony: By burning more fossil fuels, desalina-
tion will likely worsen the problem they are trying to
solve while making local water supplies more and more
dependent on increasingly expensive fossil fuels.
A Smarter Path toward
Water Security
As with many challenges, fnding the best solutions
requires frst asking the right questions. Typically, when
planners and engineers see a water shortage on the hori-
zon, they ask themselves what options exist to expand
the supply. Te typical answer: Get more water from a
distant river, deeper wells, or a desalination plant.
But as the limitations of these “supply-side” options
have become more apparent, a vanguard of citizens,
communities, farmers, and corporations has starting
asking a different question: What do we really need
the water for, and can we meet that need with less? The
upshot of this shift in thinking is a new movement
in water management that is much more about ideas,
ingenuity, and ecological intelligence than it is about
pumps, pipelines, dams, and canals.
Tis smarter path takes many forms, but it embodies
two strategic attributes. First, solutions tend to work
with nature, rather than against it. In this way, they make
efective use of so-called ecosystem services—the ben-
efts provided by healthy watersheds, rivers, wetlands,
and other ecological systems. And second, through
better technologies and more informed choices, these
solutions seek to raise water productivity—the beneft
derived from each liter of water extracted from a river,
lake, or aquifer.
Working with nature is critically important to building
resilience and reducing the energy costs associated with
water delivery and use. We can think of a landscape
composed of well-functioning ecosystems as “green
infrastructure” that provides valuable services to soci-
ety, just as roads and bridges do. Healthy rivers and
watersheds, for instance, filter out pollutants, mitigate
floods and droughts, recharge groundwater supplies,
one of the massive canals being constructed for the South–North Water
diversion project in China.
7 The PoST CARBoN ReAdeR SeRieS
and sustain fisheries. They do this work with free
energy from the sun—no fossil fuels or manufactured
energy is required. By contrast, all the technological
alternatives—building and running a treatment plant
to remove pollutants, artificially recharging ground-
water, constructing dikes and levees, raising fish on
farms—require external inputs of increasingly expen-
sive energy.
Of course, one of the most important “services” healthy
watersheds perform is the provision of clean drink-
ing water. If a watershed is doing the work of a water
treatment plant—filtering out pollutants, and at a
lower cost to boot—then it often pays to protect that
watershed. New York City, for instance, is investing
some $1.5  billion to restore and protect the Catskills-
Delaware watershed (which supplies 90 percent of its
drinking water) in lieu of constructing a $6 billion fil-
tration plant that would cost an additional $300 mil-
lion a year to operate.
A number of other cities across
the United States—from tiny Auburn, Maine, to the
city of Seattle—have saved hundreds of millions of dol-
lars in avoided capital and operating costs by opting for
watershed protection over filtration plants. In doing
so, they have enjoyed many other benefits, such as pre-
serving open space, creating recreational opportunities,
protecting habitat for birds and wildlife, and (by pre-
serving trees) mitigating climate change.
Other innovative ideas are coming from Latin America,
where some cities are establishing watershed trust
funds. For instance, Rio de Janeiro in Brazil collects fees
from water users to pay upstream farmers and ranchers
$71 per hectare ($28 per acre) to protect and restore
riparian forests, safeguarding the water supply and pre-
serving habitat for rare birds and primates. A public
watershed protection fund in Quito, Ecuador, started
in 2000 in partnership with the Nature Conservancy,
receives nearly $1 million a year from municipal water
utilities and electric companies. Quito’s water fund
has become a model for other Latin American cities,
including Cuenca, Ecuador, and Lima, Peru.
There are many ways communities can work with
nature to meet their water needs while reducing energy
costs and building resilience. Communities facing
increased flood damage, for instance, might achieve
cost-effective flood protection by restoring a local riv-
er’s natural floodplain. After enduring nineteen flood
episodes between 1961 and 1997, Napa, California,
opted for this approach over the conventional route of
channelizing and building levees. In partnership with
the Army Corps of Engineers, the $366 million project
is reconnecting the Napa River with its historic flood-
plain, moving homes and businesses out of harm’s way,
revitalizing wetlands and marshlands, and construct-
ing levees and bypass channels in strategic locations.
In addition to increased flood protection and reduced
There are many ways communities
can work with nature to meet their
water needs while reducing energy
costs and building resilience.
8 The PoST CARBoN ReAdeR SeRieS
flood-insurance rates, Napa residents will benefit from
parks and trails for recreation, higher tourism revenues,
and improved habitat for fish and wildlife.

Similarly, communities facing increased damage from
heavy stormwater runoff can turn impervious surfaces
such as roofs, streets, and parking lots into water catch-
ments by strategically planting vegetation. Portland,
Oregon, is investing in “green roofs” and “green streets”
to prevent sewer overflows into the Willamette River.

Chicago, Illinois, now boasts more than 200 green
roofs—including atop City Hall—that collectively
cover 2.5 million square feet, more than any other U.S.
city. The vegetated roofs are helping to catch stormwa-
ter, cool the urban environment, and provide space for
urban gardens.
Many communities are revitalizing their rivers by tear-
ing down dams that are no longer safe or serving a jus-
tifiable purpose. Over the last decade some 430 dams
have been removed from U.S. rivers, opening up habitat
for fisheries, restoring healthier water flows, improv-
ing water quality, and returning aquatic life to rivers.
In the ten years since the Edwards Dam was removed
from the Kennebec River near Augusta, Maine, popu-
lations of sturgeon, Atlantic salmon, and striped bass
have returned in astounding numbers, reviving a rec-
reational fishery that adds $65 million annually to the
local economy.
doing more—and living Better—
with less Water
Of all the water we withdraw worldwide from rivers,
lakes, and aquifers, 70 percent is used in agriculture,
20 percent in industries, and 10 percent in cities and
towns. With water supplies tightening, we will need
roughly a doubling of water productivity by 2025 to
satisfy human needs while sustaining nature’s life-sup-
port systems. Fortunately, opportunities to get more
benefit per drop abound through greater investments
in conservation, efficiency, recycling, and reuse, as well
as through shifts in what is produced where and when.
But the need to do more with less water is not only a
challenge for farmers, utilities, and manufacturers. It is
also up to individual consumers to shrink our personal
water footprints—the amount of water used to pro-
duce all the things we buy. The average U.S. resident
uses, directly and indirectly, about 2,480 cubic meters
of water per year—about 1,800 gallons per day—twice
the global average.
More conscious choices about what
and how much we consume are essential for reducing
our global water footprint.
Water for food
Feeding the world is a very water-intensive enterprise.
It takes about 3,000 liters of water to meet a person’s
daily dietary needs. In the United States, with its high
consumption of meat (especially grain-fed beef), the
It could take an additional
1,314 billion cubic meters of water—
equal to the annual fow of
73 Colorado Rivers—to meet
the world’s dietary needs in 2025.
9 The PoST CARBoN ReAdeR SeRieS
average diet requires some 5,000 liters of water per day.
Under some very conservative assumptions, it could
take an additional 1,314 billion cubic meters of water
per year—equal to the annual flow of 73 Colorado
Rivers—to meet the world’s dietary needs in 2025.
Once again, the search for solutions needs to begin with
a reframing of the question. Instead of asking where
we can find 73 Colorado Rivers’ worth of water, the
question is: How do we provide healthy diets for 8 billion
people without going deeper into water debt? Framed this
way, the solutions focus on getting more nutritional
value per drop of water used in agriculture, which is
the key to solving the water-food dilemma (table 7.1).
There are many ways we can grow more food for the
world with less water, with most falling into four broad
categories: (1) Irrigate more efficiently; (2) boost yields
on existing farms, especially rain-fed lands; (3) choose
healthy, less water-intensive diets; and (4) use trade to
make the smartest use of local water.
Irrigate more efciently.
For the last two centuries, societies have focused on
expanding irrigation as a key to raising crop produc-
tion. Today, the 18 percent of cropland that gets irri-
gation water provides about 40 percent of the world’s
food—but much of the water withdrawn for farming
never benefits a crop. Some of it seeps back into aqui-
fers or nearby streams, while some evaporates back to
the atmosphere. There are many ways to reduce the
waste: Irrigation can be scheduled to better match
crop water needs, for example, or drip irrigation can
be used to curb evaporation losses. Reducing irriga-
tion demands by even 10 percent could free up enough
water to meet the new urban and industrial demands
anticipated for 2025.
Boost yields on rain-fed lands.
Rain-fed croplands have been the neglected stepchild
in global agriculture, but this is now changing. Lands
watered only by rain produce 60 percent of the world’s
food. Some, including those in the U.S. Midwest, achieve
very high yields. But many rain-fed farms, particularly
in poor countries, produce far less than they could. By
one estimate, 75 percent of the world’s additional food
needs could be met by increasing harvests on low-yield
farms to 80 percent of what high-yield farms achieve
on comparable land. Most of this potential is in rain-
fed areas,
and it’s achievable through small-scale tech-
nologies and improved field methods—including, for
example, capturing and storing local rainwater to apply
to crops via low-cost irrigation systems.
Because the
majority of the world’s poor and hungry live on rain-
fed farms in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, rais-
ing the farms’ productivity would directly boost food
security and incomes.
Choose less water-intensive diets.
Foods vary greatly both in the amount of water they
take to produce and in the amount of nutrition they
provide—including energy, protein, vitamins, and
minerals. It can take five times more water to sup-
ply 10  grams of protein from beef than from rice, for
example, and nearly twenty times more water to sup-
ply 500  calories from beef than from rice. So eating
less meat can lighten our dietary water footprint (while
also improving our health). If all U.S. residents reduced
their consumption of animal products by half, the
nation’s total dietary water requirement in 2025 would
Source: Adapted from A. K. Chapagain and A. Y. hoekstra, Water Footprints
of Nations: Vol ume 1: Main Report, UNeSCo Value of Water Research Report
Series 16 (delft: UNeSCo-ihe, 2004), 42.
Table 7.1
Water Used to Produce Selected Products (global average)
PRoduct WateR used
iN PRoductioN (liteRs)
1 tomato 13
1 potato 25
1 slice of bread 40
1 orange / 1 glass of orange juice 50 / 170
1 egg 135
1 cup of cofee 140
1 glass of milk 200
1 hamburger 2,400
1 cotton t-shirt 4,100
1 pair of shoes (bovine leather) 8,000
10 The PoST CARBoN ReAdeR SeRieS
drop by 261 billion cubic meters per year, a savings
equal to the annual flow of 14 Colorado Rivers.
Use trade to make the smartest use of local water.
While regional food resilience is important, some
water-scarce regions may find it makes better eco-
nomic and even environmental sense to import more of
their food, rather than grow it themselves, and reserve
their water for drinking and manufacturing. Egypt,
Israel, Jordan, and a dozen other water-scarce coun-
tries already import a good share of their grain, sav-
ing 1,000–3,000 cubic meters of water for each ton of
grain they import. Today, 26 percent of the global grain
trade is driven by countries choosing to import water
indirectly in the form of grain.

This trade strategy can often be a good alternative to
overpumping groundwater or diverting rivers long dis-
tances. As water analyst Jing Ma and colleagues point
out, northern China annually exports to southern
China about 52 billion cubic meters of water indirectly
through foodstuffs and other products. This volume
exceeds that expected to be shipped from south to
north through the massive water-transfer scheme now
under construction.
A rethinking of where, what, and
how food is grown within China might allow the proj-
ect to be scaled far back, if not eliminated altogether.
At the national level, however, a food policy that relies
on grain imports can pose significant risks, especially
for poor countries. As China, India, Pakistan, and
other populous, water-stressed countries begin to look
to the international grain market to meet their rising
demands, food prices are bound to increase. The food
riots that erupted in Haiti, Senegal, Mauritania, and
some half dozen other countries as grain prices climbed
in 2007 and 2008 are likely a harbinger of what is to
come and suggest that a degree of food self-sufficiency
may be crucial to food security.
And of course, the
rising fuel costs and increased potential for fuel scarcity
associated with peak oil will only make food imports
more expensive and less reliable in the long run.
Water for homes and manUfaCtUrIng
Changes in the production and consumption of manu-
factured goods can also shrink our water footprints. For
example, Unilever is taking steps to reduce water use
across the life cycle of its products, from raw materials
to manufacturing to packaging to consumer use. Since
1995, water use in its factories has dropped 63  per-
cent, with some of its factories now treating and reus-
ing all of their process water. Unilever is also working
with its raw material suppliers to help conserve water.
For example, by installing drip irrigation systems on
a Tanzanian tea plantation and on a Brazilian tomato
farm, the company is shrinking the water footprint of
its Lipton tea and Ragu tomato sauce.
It can take nearly
twenty times more
water to supply
500 calories from
beef than from rice.
11 The PoST CARBoN ReAdeR SeRieS
In communities across the United States, conserva-
tion remains the least expensive and most environ-
mentally sound way of balancing water budgets—and
its potential has barely been tapped. Many cities and
towns have shown significant reductions in water use
through relatively simple measures like repairing leaks
in distribution systems, retrofitting homes and busi-
nesses with water-efficient fixtures and appliances, and
promoting more sensible and efficient outdoor water
use. For example, a highly successful conservation pro-
gram started in Boston in 1987 cut total water demand
43  percent by 2009, bringing water use to a fifty-year
low and eliminating the need for a costly diversion
project from the Connecticut River.

The greatest residential water-conservation gains yet to
be made lie in smarter landscape choices and watering
practices. Turf grass covers some 16.4 million hectares
(40.5 million acres) in the United States—an area three
times larger than any irrigated farm crop in the coun-
try. Particularly in the western United States, where
outdoor watering typically accounts for 40 to 70 per-
cent of household water use, converting thirsty green
lawns into native drought-tolerant landscaping can save
a great deal of water. Las Vegas now pays residents $2 for
each square foot of grass they rip out, which has helped
shrink the city’s turf area by 80 million square feet and
lower its annual water use by 18 billion gallons in just
four years.
Albuquerque, New Mexico, has reduced its
total water use by 21 percent since 1995 largely through
education and by providing rebates to residents for
using water-conserving irrigation systems.
One of the biggest untapped potentials for smarter
water management in all types of enterprises lies in
more creative use of information technologies: meters,
sensors, controllers, computers, and even cell phones.
A little book-sized product called iStaq, made by
U.K.-based Qonnectis, fits under a manhole cover and
measures flow, pressure, and other water variables. If
the water pipe springs a leak, the iStaq alerts the util-
ity operator by text message. In farming regions, real-
time weather data collection combined with crop
evapotranspiration rates and sensors monitoring soil
moisture are helping farmers determine when and how
much to irrigate their crops. There’s even an iPhone
application that enables farmers to remotely monitor
moisture levels in their fields through sensors placed
near the roots of their crops.
In Ugandan villages, farmers lacking computers are
getting access to the wealth of information on the
Internet by calling their questions in to a free tele-
phone hotline called Question Box. The operators,
who speak the local language, search for the answers
and call the farmers back. A project of Open Mind,
a California-based nonprofit, Question Box enables
poor farmers, whose only communication device may
be a village phone, to connect to the wired world for
information on crop prices, weather forecasts, plant
diseases, and more.
Te potential uses of information technology to enable
smarter water decisions are extensive and have only
begun to be tapped. Using GIS (geographic information
system) technology, for example, the World Wildlife
Fund (WWF) recently identifed more than 6,000 tra-
ditional water tanks (small reservoirs to capture rainfall
or runof) in a single sub-watershed in western India.
WWF determined that if the tanks were restored to
capture just 15 to 20 percent of local rainfall, they could
drip irrigation feeds water directly to crops.
12 The PoST CARBoN ReAdeR SeRieS
hold some 1.74  billion cubic meters of water—enough
to expand irrigated area in the region by 50 percent and
at a cost per hectare just one-fourth that of an irrigation
dam-and-diversion project proposed for the region.

Resetting the Signals
Most of the world’s water shortages have arisen because
the policies and rules that motivate decisions about
water have encouraged inefficiency and misalloca-
tion rather than conservation and wise use. Without
big dams and river diversions subsidized by taxpayers,
for example, rivers and streams in the western United
States would not be so severely depleted today. And
without low, flat rates for electricity, India’s groundwa-
ter would not be so severely overpumped.
Allowing markets to do what they can do well—send a
price signal about water’s value—is critical for encour-
aging investments in water efficiency and more sensible
uses of water. Most governments in rich and poor coun-
tries alike, however, continue to send the wrong signal
by heavily subsidizing water, especially for irrigation,
the biggest consumer. While better pricing is essential,
it doesn’t automatically account for the many impor-
tant benefits of rivers, lakes, wetlands, and streams—
such as protecting water quality and providing fish and
wildlife habitat—that are not recognized in the mar-
ketplace. It is the job of governments, as custodians of
the public trust in water, to protect these important but
often unrecognized values, and it is the job of citizens
to demand that their elected officials get busy crafting
creative solutions.
Imagine, for example, if U.S. policy-makers propped up
farm incomes not with irrigation and crop subsidies that
distort markets and misallocate resources, but rather
with payments for protecting ecosystem services that
beneft society at large. Farmers and ranchers who plant
bufer strips along streams, protect soils from erosion,
or provide wildlife habitat through wetland protection
would receive a payment for providing these services.
Te Conservation Reserve Program under the U.S.
Department of Agriculture (USDA) could be strength-
ened to secure these water benefts for the long term,
perhaps in conjunction with the USDA’s new Office
for Ecosystem Services and Markets. A tax on water
depletion or transfers could help fund the effort.

Current pricing and policy signals are deeply mis-
aligned with the realities of our water predicament—
but this means that there are untold opportunities
for improvement. Each of the ideas listed in box 7.1
has been implemented by some local, state, or national
government somewhere, and has achieved positive
results. For example, a cap on groundwater pump-
ing from the Edwards Aquifer in south-central Texas
has motivated farmers, businesses, and citizens to con-
serve. San Antonio has cut its per capita water use by
Most of the world’s water shortages
have arisen because the policies
and rules that motivate decisions
about water have encouraged
inefciency and misallocation.
13 The PoST CARBoN ReAdeR SeRieS
more than 40 percent to one of the lowest levels of any
western U.S. city.

It is critical that policy-makers begin to grapple with the
inconvenient truth that supplying water takes energy
and supplying energy takes water. Energy and water are
tightly entwined, and all too often public policies to
“solve” one problem simply make the other one worse.
For example, the 2007 mandate of the U.S. Congress

to produce 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol a year by
2015 would annually require an estimated 6  trillion
liters of additional irrigation water (and even more
direct rainfall)—a volume exceeding the annual water
withdrawals of the entire state of Iowa.
Even solar
power creates a demand for water, especially some of
the big solar-thermal power plants slated for the sunny
Clearly any action we take to build local
renewable energy sources must be careful not to add
additional strain to our already-stressed rivers and
The win-win of the water-energy nexus, of course, is
that saving water saves energy, and saving energy saves
water. The more a community lives on water, energy,
and food produced locally, the more options arise for
solving multiple problems simultaneously, building
resilience through resourcefulness, and preparing for
future uncertainties.
box 7.1
ideas to Transition to a more Secure Water Future
• Cap groundwater and river depletion.
• Reduce subsidies; price water to better refect its value.
• Protect wetlands and watersheds to safeguard water quality.
• Re-operate (improve the release of water) or remove dams so
as to restore natural river fows.
• establish payments for ecosystem services.
• ofer rebates or tax credits for conservation and efciency
• encourage “green infrastructure” (e.g., roofs, streets) in
urban and suburban areas.
• Reduce individual/corporate/community water footprints.
• ensure that decision-making is inclusive, transparent, and
accountable to the public.
14 The PoST CARBoN ReAdeR SeRieS
1 intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (iPCC), climate
change 2007—the Physical science Basis, (Cambridge, UK:
Cambridge University Press, 2007); and iPCC, “Summaries
for Policymakers,” in climate change 2007—impacts,
adaptation and Vulnerability, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press, 2007).
2 Tim Pearce, ed., “Natural disasters displacing millions—
U.N. Study,” Reuters, September 22, 2009; Robert draper,
“Australia’s dry Run,” National Geographic, April 2009,
35-59; heather Timmons, “half a million Are Stranded by
india Flood,” the New York times, September 1, 2008; mian
Ridge, “india’s Farmers Struggle Without Crucial monsoon
Rains,” christian science Monitor, August 25, 2009; Paul
Rodgers, “millions Facing Famine in ethiopia as Rains Fail,”
the independent, August 30, 2009.
3 “iowa Flood, midwest Flooding: Videos, maps, News and
Background,”, June 13, 2008, http://geology.
com/events/iowa-fooding/; “governor Sonny Perdue
Prays for Rain in georgia,, November 14, 2007;
Robbie Brown and liz Robbins, “Rain Stops, but 8 are dead
in Southeast Floods,” the New York times, September 22,
4 P.C.d. milly et al., “Stationarity is dead: Whither Water
management?” science 319 (February 1, 2008), 573-574.
5 ibid., for $500 billion annual global investment fgure.
6 Stuart Bunn, presentation at the 94th Annual meeting
of the ecological Society of America, Albuquerque, Nm,
August 2-7, 2009; for an excellent narrative on the Australian
drought, see Robert draper, ”Australia’s dry Run,” National
Geographic, April 2009, 35-59.
7 Tim Barnett and david Pierce, “When Will lake mead go
dry?” Water Resources Research 44 (march 29, 2008).
8 Richard Seager et al., “model Projections of an imminent
Transition to a more Arid Climate in Southwestern North
America,” science 316 (may 25, 2007), 1181-1184.
9 Population fgures from Population Reference Bureau (PRB),
2009 World Population data sheet,
10 Just six countries (Brazil, Russia, Canada, indonesia, China,
and Colombia) account for half the water annually fowing
back toward the sea in rivers, streams and underground
aquifers—what hydrologists call “runof,” according to the
United Nations Food and Agriculture organization (FAo),
Review of World Water Resources by country, (Rome: FAo,
11 Number of large dams (those at least 15 meters high) from
World Commission on dams, dams and development
(london: earthscan Publications, 2000); Jamie Pittock
et al., “interbasin Water Transfers and Water Scarcity in a
Changing World—A Solution or a Pipedream?” (Frankfurt:
World Wildlife Fund germany, August 2009).
12 Sandra Postel, “Where have All the Rivers gone?” World
Watch 8 (may/June 1995); Fred Pearce, When the Rivers Run
dry (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006).
13 Sandra Postel, Pillar of sand: can the irrigation Miracle last?
(New York: W.W Norton & Co., 1999).
14 matthew Rodell, isabella Velicogna, and James S. Famiglietti,
“Satellite-based estimates of groundwater depletion in
india,” Nature 460 (August 20, 2009).
15 V.l. mcguire, Ground Water depletion in the High Plains
aquifer, Predevelopment to 2005, U.S. geological Survey
Fact Sheet 2007-3029, 2007,;
30 percent fgure from U.S.g.S., “high Plains Regional
ground Water (hPgW) Study,”
16 Jamie Pittock et al., “interbasin Water Transfers and Water
Scarcity in a Changing World”; total transfer volume from
Ruixiang Zhu, “China’s South-North Water Transfer Project
and its impacts on economic and Social development,”
People’s Republic of China ministry of Water Resources
17 Kenneth Pomeranz, “The great himalayan Watershed:
Agrarian Crisis, mega-dams and the environment,” New left
Review 58, (July-August 2009); estimates of india’s irrigated
area vary widely depending on the source and estimation
method per Prasad S. Thenkabail, et al., “irrigated Area maps
and Statistics of india Using Remote Sensing and National
Statistics,” Remote sensing 1, no.2 (April 17, 2009), 50-67.
18 Brian d. Richter, “lost in development’s Shadow: The
downstream human Consequences of dams,” World
Commission on dams, forthcoming.
19 Robert Wilkinson, Methodology for analysis of the energy
intensity of california’s Water systems, and an assessment
of Multiple Potential Benefts through integrated Water-
energy efciency Measures, environmental Studies Program,
University of California, Santa Barbara (2000), 6; Qei, inc.,
electricity efciency through Water efciency, Repo rt for the
southern california edison company, (Springfeld, NJ: 1992),
15 The PoST CARBoN ReAdeR SeRieS
20 debbie Cook, former mayor of huntington Beach (Calif.), has
said “The next worst idea to turning tar sands into synthetic
crude is turning ocean water into municipal drinking water.”,
quoted in “desalination—energy down the drain,” The
oil drum, march 2, 2009,
21 Quirin Schiermeier, “Purifcation with a Pinch of Salt,” Nature
452, no.7 (march 20, 2008), 260-261.
22 National Academy of Sciences, Water Science and
Technology Board, desalination: a National Perspective,
(Washington dC: National Academy Press, 2008); 15,000
fgure from Schiermeier, “Purifcation with a Pinch of Salt.”
23 NAS Water Science and Technology Board, desalination:
a National Perspective.
24 Sandra Postel, liquid assets: the critical Need to
safeguard Freshwater ecosystems, Worldwatch Paper 170,
(Washington, dC: Worldwatch institute, 2005).
25 Sandra Postel and Barton h. Thompson, Jr., “Watershed
Protection: Capturing the Benefts of Nature’s Water Supply
Services,” Natural Resources Forum 29, no.2 (may 2005),
26 Cara goodman, “South America: Creating Water Funds for
People and Nature,” The Nature Conservancy, http://www. For more examples and a fuller description of
Quito’s fund, see Postel, liquid assets.
27 National Research Council, Valuing ecosystem services:
toward Better environmental decision-Making (Washington,
d.C.: The National Academy Press, 2005); $366 million
fgure from david g. Killam, “Sacramento district Project
Wins Public Works Project of the Year,” website of the
U.S. Army, February 12, 2009,
28 Will hewes and Kristen Pitts, Natural security: How
sustainable Water strategies are Preparing communities
for a changing climate (Washington, dC: American Rivers,
29 emily Pilloton, “Chicago green Roof Program,” inhabitat,
August 1, 2006,
30 Number of 430 dams is from Rebecca Wodder, “Tolling Bells
Ushered in Kennebec River’s Rebirth,” Kennebec Journal &
Morning sentinel, June 28, 2009; $65 million fgure is from
hewes and Pitts, Natural security; for more on dams and
rivers, see Sandra Postel and Brian Richter, Rivers for life:
Managing Water for People and Nature, (Washington, dC:
island Press, 2003).
31 A. Y. hoekstra and A. K. Chapagain, “Water Footprints
of Nations: Water Use by People as a Function of their
Consumption Pattern,” Water Resources Management 21,
no.1 (2006), 35-48.
32 For this calculation, i assumed that the 1.2 billion people
who will join humanity’s ranks over the next ffteen years
will eat low-meat diets, and i made no allowance for the
850 million people who don’t have enough food today, nor
for the increasing dietary water requirements in China and
elsewhere as incomes rise; hence it is very conservative.
33 Postel, Pillar of sand; 2025 calculation based on withdrawal
estimates in William J. Cosgrove and Frank R. Rijsberman,
World Water Vision: Making Water everybody’s Business
(london: earthscan, 2000).
34 david molden, ed., Water for Food, Water for life: a
comprehensive assessment of Water Management in
agriculture (london: earthscan, and Colombo: international
Water management institute, 2007).
35 For a fuller description, see Postel, Pillar of sand, chapter
9; useful websites include those of the international Water
management institute, at, which also
has many informative publications; for more on rainwater
harvesting, see the website of the Centre for Science and
environment in delhi, india, at, especially
their site,; for examples of
afordable, small-plot irrigation, see especially international
development enterprises, at
36 dietary water requirement from d. Renault and W.W.
Wallender, “Nutritional Water Productivity and diets,”
agricultural Water Management 45 (2000), 275-296;
calculation assumes average annual dietary water
requirement drops from 1,971 cubic meters per person
to 1,242; U.S. 2025 population of 358.7 million is the
medium variant estimate of the Population division of the
department of economic and Social Afairs of the United
Nations, World Population Prospects: the 2008 Revision,
37 Analysis of grain import dependence based on data from
U.S. department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service,
“Production, Supply and distribution online,” at http://www.
38 Jing ma et al., “Virtual Versus Real Water Transfers Within
China,” Philosophical transactions of the Royal society B
361 (2006) 835-842.
39 Postel, Pillar of sand; Sandra Postel, “But Who Will export
Tomorrow’s Virtual Water,” in the truth about Water Wars,
Seed, may 14, 2009,
16 The PoST CARBoN ReAdeR SeRieS
40 Sandra Postel and Amy Vickers, “Boosting Water
Productivity,” state of the World 2004 (Washington, dC:
Worldwatch institute, 2004), 46-65; Unilever example
from sustainable development Report 2007: environmental
sustainability, (Unilever, 2007).
41 For conservation methods and examples, see Amy
Vickers, Handbook of Water use and conservation: Homes,
landscapes, Businesses, industries, Farms (Amherst, mA:
WaterPlow Press, 2001); Boston example from Sandra
Postel, liquid assets, and Sandra Postel, “lessons from the
Field—Boston Conservation,” National geographic website,
march, 2010,
42 Cristina milesi et al., “mapping and modeling the
Biogeochemical Cycling of Turf grasses in the United
States,” environmental Management 36 (September, 2005),
426-438; dara Colwell, “our love Afair With our lawns is
hurling the U.S. Toward Water Crisis,” AlterNet, october
2, 2009,; las Vegas fgures from
Robert glennon, unquenchable: america’s Water crisis and
What to do about it (Washington, dC: island Press, 2009).
43 Personal email communication with Katherine m. Yuhas,
Water Conservation ofcer, Albuquerque Bernalillo County
Water Authority, Albuquerque, Nm, october 12-13, 2009.
Between 1995 and 2008, Albuquerque’s total water
production declined from 40.775 billion gallons to 32.247
billion gallons, while the population served increased from
445,167 to 559,828.
44 iStaq example from matthew Power, “Peak Water: Aquifers
and Rivers are Running dry. how Three Regions are Coping,”
Wired Magazine 16, no. 5 (April 21, 2008); “iPhone App ofers
Remote Water Sensing For Farmers, the New York times,
June 30, 2009; see the website for Question Box at http://, and Ron Nixon, “dialing for Answers Where
Web Can’t Reach,” the New York times, September 28,
45 Jamie Pittock et al., “interbasin Water Transfers and Water
Scarcity in a Changing World.”
46 For more examples, see Sandra Postel and Barton h.
Thompson Jr., “Watershed Protection: Capturing the
Benefts of Nature’s Water Supply Services,” Natural
Resources Forum 29 (may 2005), 98-108.
47 edwards Aquifer Authority website, at www.edwardsaquifer.
org; water use from San Antonio Water System, 2008 annual
48 U.S. Congress, energy independence and security act of
2007, 110th Cong., 1st session, 2007.
49 R. dominguez-Faus et al., “The Water Footprint of Biofuels:
A drink or drive issue?” environmental science & technology
43 (may 1, 2009), 3005-3010.
50 Todd Woody, “Alternative energy Projects Stumble on a
Need for Water,” the New York times, September 30, 2009.
Photo Credits
Page 4, Sheep grazing in darling River, cbnd d.
Page 6, henan China Feb 2009, cbna Remko Tanis.
Page 11, Central Coast organic Farm Tour, cbn CUeSA.
images marked c are under a Creative Commons license.
Cover art by mike King. design by Sean mcguire. layout by
Clare Rhinelander.
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